The Scars Above My Heart

by Sean English

Chapter 10

Returning to "Normal" Life

"So, did you like your week away from everybody and everything?"

Alex pulled back from the fierce hug in which his mother enveloped him. They were standing in the parking lot, where a generally chaotic scene was unfolding around them. Many parents and siblings welcomed their sons or brothers return that day, as the droves of campers continued to disembark from the busses. The weather, giving a brief respite despite the downpour of torrential rains that morning, announced it was not yet finished, as another round of thunder rumbled overhead. As Alex glanced off to the northwest, rain seemed likely to arrive at any minute.

Brenda stood next to them, giving Brett similar treatment, along with Gina, who just then had taken to clinging onto her brother's side. "Welcome back, poodle rack!" she announced, to everyone's amusement, before wrinkling her nose and stepping back. "Holy phew, Pepé Le Pew! Didn't you guys take any showers while you were there?"

Brett and Alex both laughed at that one. "We did, but the rains kind of soaked us this morning, and well, a lot of us guys got sweaty while we were shutting down camp," Brett answered her. "Dry and clean clothes were not in the final recipe before we left, I think."

Patty gave Brenda a knowing look before speaking up. "Well, you're not that bad off, but I dare say you two are probably headed for the showers when we get home." Brenda agreed, just as Alex changed the subject.

"Uh, where's Dad? Did he not come with you?"

Patty shook her head. "No, he and Richard made a drive up into Indianapolis this morning. It seems the Edwards' air conditioner is on the blink, and in order to fix it, they needed an odd part that couldn't get delivered until mid-next week."

"Aw, man!" Brett announced, pouting. "That means the whole house is probably baking, right?"

Brenda sighed. "Afraid so, young man. But don't worry, we've managed before."

"That's right! I'm spending the night with Kaitlyn tonight, and I think you're going to stay with Alex," Gina piped up, surprising both of the older boys. Patty laughed at the fact both sets of eyebrows arched up simultaneously. Gina suddenly pulled back, blushing.

"Well, talk about letting the cat out of the bag!" Patty grinned. "Anyway, that is if you two think you can stand being together one more night," she announced. "But listen, all of you, we need to get back to the car before this new rain sets in. Do you guys need to do anything before we go?"

"Yeah, we need to let the coach know we're done is all. You guys go ahead; I'll run over and tell him, and then catch up in a minute," Brett offered, handing his sports-bag to Gina. As he trotted away, the three of them and Alex started making their way into the parking lot. Already they could feel scattered raindrops beginning to fall, so little discussion followed as they hurriedly found their vehicle and climbed in. Patty started it up and moved toward the bus line, while the group looked out for the missing teenager. Within moments, however, one of them spotted Brett making his way back, so Patty honked the horn. Brett spied them then, and immediately adjusted his course. Arriving, the teen climbed into the back with Gina and Alex. Just as he shut the door, another vigorous outburst started falling, along with an ominous clap of thunder. "Wow! Talk about timing!" he exclaimed.

"No kidding!" Gina announced. Despite her earlier remark, she immediately put both arms around her brother. "Come here," she quipped, hugging him fiercely. Brett had to practically bend over, falling toward her lap as she wrapped him up tight.

"Hey! I love you too, but don't break my neck!" he murmured, then shifted around and returned his own hug. When she finally let him go, she turned to Alex. "You, too," she said simply, before wrapping her arms around him and repeating the performance.

The only difference was that Alex wrapped his arms around her simultaneously, and buried his nose into her neck, nuzzling it. "Thanks," he whispered into her ear, which made her smile and give him an extra squeeze before letting him go. Looking up, he was surprised to find his mother had already guided their car to the entrance of the school yard and was readying to turn left. "We're not going home?" he asked aloud, to which his mother shook her head.

"Not yet. We're starving, having skipped breakfast this morning, and I figured you two would be on board for a more normalized lunch, after eating camp food all week," Patty announced.

"Oh boy, are we ever," Brett replied for them both.

"We were thinking of getting pizza or Mexican. Does either one of those grab your appetites?" Brenda spoke up, as they pulled out onto the highway.

"Both sound great to me," Alex jibbed in, which caused Brett to nod in agreement.

Gina pipped up. "Well, since they like both, I say we go for pizza!"

Both women in front laughed, and then Patty set out for one of the local pizza establishments. For the next hour over lunch, both boys were queried endlessly about their week in camp, how it had been, what did they do, and more. All three females' curiosity was piqued when Brett told of Alex's adventures in teaching a group of the boys how to swim, and how they had all been running off the docks and doing cannonballs by their third day. "I can't even do that!" Gina protested, frowning.

"Really?" Alex asked, then upon seeing her nod, shrugged. "Well, Brett and I can teach you sometime, if you want."

"She can swim okay, other than she splashes the water a little hard. She also hesitates about jumping in, because water gets up in her nose and ears a little too suddenly, I think," Brenda mused.

"Well, I found out this week that there's ways to manage that," Brett piped up. "Alex taught all of us some things we hadn't heard of or thought about before. He was really good at it!"

"Then, you'll teach me, right? Please? That would be so awesome!" Gina squealed.

Alex glanced at her and grinned. "Of course, I will. If you want me to," he added for good measure. Gina squealed a second time, making the others laugh again.

The group departed the restaurant and began heading home afterwards. The drive was equally as active as before, only the topic had turned to the Edwards' situation at home. Brenda turned to Brett at one point. "Patty did invite you to stay with Alex, tonight. I didn't think you'd mind, right?" Brett grinned and shook his head, so she continued. "Well, come on in the house for a bit and get a shower and all. Your father will be back soon, and I'm sure he'll want to see you, too, before you go traipsing off again."

Alex almost objected, thinking he would tell the ladies Brett could use their shower. Just as quick, however, it struck him that the suggestion might not be all that appropriate, so he restrained himself. A quick glance from Brett showed that the teen must have been thinking along the same line. Alex realized that although he kept silent, the game had changed now. They were no longer in camp, and the confines of reality had now returned as they re-entered family life. Luckily, Gina had been staring out the window and had missed their exchange.

Upon arriving, Patty drove their guests as close as they could get to the house, and after thanking the two for the ride, all three Edwards quickly alighted and ran for the back door. Patty waited long enough to assure they had made their way inside, before turning around. Alex leaned forward, resting his chin upon the forward seat while his mother navigated the short distance to their house. "Has everything been quiet while I was gone?"

Patty, glancing into the rear-view mirror, smiled at her son. "Well, mostly. There's a new box in your bedroom for you to go through, and then your Dad and I had an interesting run-in with someone the other day. A Mr. Spalding, I think was his name."

Alex's eyes narrowed immediately, his sense heightened. "Seriously?"

"Yes. He came to our door Wednesday afternoon, about 5:30 or so. We had just arrived home for maybe 5 minutes or so, when he started banging on the front door. It seems he was out looking for two young men, floating about the area under the guise of being auto detailers," Patty answered as they turned into their own driveway. "Said he had a customer that didn't like the job they did for him, and he was trying to track them down. That was surprising, really, since you use your cell number to communicate with everyone. Your Dad caught onto that right away and took an instant disliking to him. I'm afraid I did, too. You see, we both knew you two haven't had any complaints or anything." Seeing the look in her son's eyes and a spark of recognition in them, she raised an eyebrow. "Why, do you two know of him?"

Alex sat back and thought carefully, then as the car was parked, he leaned forward again. "Unfortunately, yeah, we do." As his mother turned the engine off, Alex then briefly summarized his and Brett's encounter with the man at the beginning of summer term. He gave her a full account, but downplayed the minor altercation they had when leaving as being non-physical. It wasn't he was afraid to tell her, but he didn't want his mother to worry overtly over those details. Patty listened carefully, nodding in places before he finished, and then turned to face him completely.

"I understand, honey. Tell me something though, why didn't you tell us about this before?" Patty asked.

Alex shrugged. "I didn't think it was anything more than just someone trying to bully us around, to tell the truth. He seemed like he was more filled with hot air than anything else."

"Well, you're right about that. Your Dad took him outside onto the porch, and then had a dickens of a time getting rid of him. Something, though I'm not quite sure what, seemed off about the man in other ways, too," Patty mused.

"How so?" Alex asked.

"Well, besides being overly nosy, he tried to ask a lot of questions about you, and about us as a family and everything." Patty immediately saw the alarm register in Alex's face, so she hastened on. "Stop, don't panic - we didn't give the man much of anything at all. Like I said, your Dad was keen for him to just move on his way, and eventually he did. Once your Dad got back inside the house, he immediately reached out to our contact too, and they followed up on him. As far as we know, the man's in the clear, although he's supposedly an egregious snob in the neighborhood. Not very well liked, at all."

"I would second that motion in a heartbeat," Alex said, relief evident in his voice. He scrunched his nose before speaking again. "I don't know, Mom. I mean, I'm sorry I didn't bring it up to you guys, but it just didn't seem to be that big of a deal, you know? Brett and I had our day with him, and he was a pig about it, so we high-tailed it out of there. We haven't seen anything of him since."

Patty nodded. "Okay, honey, I believe you. Don't worry about it too much. We'll all keep our eyes out for him though, just in case."

"Did you tell the Edwards?" Alex asked, suddenly thinking about his friend. Thankfully his mother nodded.

"I called Brenda before the man left here, and warned her about him just in case. I figured that might be the prudent thing to do, really," Patty responded. She sighed. "It's over, at least for now. Your Dad and I figured he was just fishing for information, and now with what you've told me, I'm sure of it."

"There's no telling what he was up to, though. You said you guys didn't give him any info much, right?" Alex asked quietly.

"No, not really. We acknowledged having a son, but when the man started getting a little too nosy, your father put a stop to it right there. I think he may have outright asked the man to leave, too." Patty's eyes narrowed, however. "That doesn't mean he can't learn something from other people though, so be on your guard, honey. If you have any more run-ins with him, be sure you tell me and/or your Dad right away. Okay?"

"I will Mom, I promise," Alex replied. Breathing deeply, he let go of his breath slowly. "Believe me, I know what's at stake."

Surprisingly, Patty reached out and placed her arm around his shoulders. "I know you do, honey. You're just like your Dad. Both of you watch out far, far more than you should have to - for all of us, at that. Maybe someday we can put all of this behind us."

Alex looked deeply into her eyes just then. "I doubt it, Mom. I mean, we'll never be completely free of those people, you know? Even after everything ends, there will always be-"

"I know, honey. Believe me, I know. But really, would you rather live with the alternative? We'll be fine, trust me. Or rather, trust your father. Okay?"

Alex grasped her hand and squeezed it lovingly. "I haven't stopped yet, have I?" he asked. They then heard the rain beating against the car's hood slacken outside, and taking the cue after a quick glance to one another, both readily opened their doors and made the run for the house.

Alex stood before the mirror, drying his hair vigorously. The days at camp had included showers, although irregularly at best, but nothing seemed as refreshing to him as being back in his own room, in his own environment again. After spending some time with his mother below, he had eventually dumped his dirty clothes into the laundry room's basket, then climbed the stairs to his room. Entering his bathroom, he started drawing water for another hot bath, this being one he intended to lie in and let the water soak away his aches and tiredness. Upon stripping his briefs away and stepping in, he had lain back and fallen asleep quickly, dreaming of little, but suddenly happy to be home. He had enjoyed being in camp from the start, but now that it was over, he relished once again the quiet solitude surrounding him.

Putting the towel away, he stared at himself in the mirror as he stood there, still naked inside of his inner world. He observed the scars that had been left behind months before, seeing them in a newer light than he had previously. Oft times he would look at them and feel depressed, their near-hand appearance causing him to have reason for worry out in the real world. After letting Brett finally see them, and seeing the understanding in his best friend's eyes, he had started to have hope, but it wasn't until he saw the same acceptance in the eyes of the other boys at camp, that he started to believe in himself differently. Long before their adventurous week began, Alex had already accepted his fate at being a shunned outcast. Now, that was changing.

His scars were not freakish by any means, but having them had destroyed his hope of ever being accepted in any normal way. His parents, even the doctors, originally told him they would fade and smooth out over time, but that time would be long and dependent on how well he took care of his body. Now, after months, though the surface nerves and aches had subsided, the internal ones were still there, and they served as a constant reminder to him that the proverbial 'later' would still never be soon enough. He had already envisioned meeting a girl someday, and their relationship would be developing fine until the one night she would find his abnormality - and then storm out of the room, hurt and at a loss. He knew he should have more faith in humanity than he did, but it was hard - both physically and emotionally - to come to terms with the why of it happening to him.

It was not so, now. Finding acceptance from the boys, even if they were as young as their lot, and from the other few volunteers who happened to be closer to his own age, had changed his perspective. Aside from his feelings for Brett, which had grown even more special while they were away, he suddenly felt that going to camp was the absolutely best thing that could have happened to him since the fire. The friends he made, and the camaraderie they all developed with their inherent trust amongst one another, caused Alex to re-evaluate his opinion of himself.

The only thing that troubled his mind, was his relationship with Brett. He had already come to terms, long before the trip, with what it would mean to have some fun with the teen. Their fun though, was already elevating to a new level, and now that he thought about events at camp, he knew it had elevated even more. For most of his life, Alex had never really loved anyone other than his parents. He had a deep affection for his grandparents, and he both acknowledged and understood where his relationships were with the rest of their family. Still, he hadn't seen most of them in years now, and being in such close quarters as they were, his parents had been his only focus. Now, meeting Brett, and building a connection with him so tight, had changed his perspective of friendships that grew to be more than simple acquaintances.

Initially, Alex labeled it as just being a pure friendship that was built on mutual trust. As that trust had grown, however, he saw that behind Brett's façade to the world, was a teen who had deep feelings too, not unlike his own. That opened a key within his heart, and Alex had to come to terms with what it meant to actually have feelings - deep feelings - of loving another boy. Until then, he had always felt their sex play was just an adventurous side for them, the fun that crowned their growing connection. Now though, he knew different. They didn't get each other off just for the fun of it anymore, just because they could. They did it now because they both knew the bond between them was so strong, that getting each other off was a culmination of their feelings between them. Isn't that what a part of love is all about? Real love? Alex thought so, and from that realization he decided he didn't really care then, if he was a developing gay, or bi-sexual individual. He had neither had those kinds of thoughts before moving there, nor did he have the kind of opportunities to explore them as he had now. That was the peaceful result for him, because now, it didn't matter. He truly felt he was falling in love with the only boy who had ever bothered to see, and feel, something in Alex that no one else had before.

He was roused from his reverie by a familiar sound downstairs, one reminiscent of the back door being opened and someone entering the house. He hastily turned out the light and hurried into his room, quickly finding briefs and shorts which he donned. Listening, he smiled as he heard his father downstairs talking with someone, and as he pulled on a t-shirt he started heading for the stairs. At the bottom, he was greeted by a familiar figure, grinning widely. "Hey! There's my sport! How you doing, buddy?"

Alex laughed as he hugged the man. It had been a long time since he had heard words, or enthusiasm, like that. "I'm doing great! How about you?"

"Oh, fair to middling, I think. How was camp?" Richard replied. They moved into the living room and sat down, spending the next half-hour talking about the various things that had gone on while Alex was at camp. Patty joined them and informed her husband about Alex's tenure as a swim instructor, which considerably impressed the man. "So, you taught a bunch of boys how to swim? How many was in the group?"

"I think around 25 or so altogether. Brett helped me, too," Alex answered, though blushing somewhat.

"Well, I think that sounds awesome! I take it you got to make a lot of new friends, too, right?" While Alex nodded, Richard sat back into the couch. "Did you see the box upstairs yet?"

Alex grinned. "Yeah, thanks Dad! Brett and I will probably try to put it up tonight. I saw you bought a wall-bracket, too."

Richard nodded. "I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to it, son, but I guess it's better late than never, right?"

"I think it's just fine. I noticed it's a pretty big one, too! What, 50-inch or something?" Alex asked.

"It's a 55-inch flat panel, one of those ultra-high-def versions, too. Or something like that, anyway," the man mused. "Your mother and I were intending to just get a 46 or 50-inch, but that one was on clearance this week, and we decided it would be just as good. Came out a little cheaper, too, I think. Besides, I figure once you hook one of those game system thingies to it, you'd probably appreciate it even more."

Alex grinned. "Are you kidding? Absolutely!" he declared. "Thanks then, to both of you. I would have never thought about getting a TV that big."

Patty leaned forward. "Well, if you're mounting it on the wall, the larger size isn't that big of a deal. Of course, if you WANT a smaller TV, we can always take it back..." She laughed at the face Alex made just then, and then all three ended up giggling with each other. Alex sat back, admiring his parents. They had a relationship with him that was not only very open, but nurtured as well. In all the time Alex had grown up under their care, they had given the teen everything he needed, and then added the little surprises like this on occasion. Not because they were rewarding him, however, but more so because they just wanted to. The teen realized that, and it made his affection for them grow even more.

It was Richard who changed the subject afterwards. "Your mother and I met an interesting man the other day, though he is hardly what I would envision as being a friend."

"We talked about that earlier," Patty intervened. "Alex said he and Brett actually ran upon the man early when they were visiting car lots to sign up with. It seems the boys didn't care for Mr. Spalding, either." She went on to explain the details Alex had given up earlier that day.

Seeing Alex nod, Richard assessed his son with concern. "You know, you really should have told us about that." Seeing the objection that was about rise, the man held up his hand. "I know, son, and personally I agree with you. Maybe it didn't seem too big of a deal, but it is obvious this man is out to make some trouble for you two, in some way. My guess is, he has an ego about as big as that portly frame he carries about him. We're all going to have to be careful, you know."

"Do you think it's something we really need to worry about?" Patty asked, concern then crossing her face.

Richard studied for a moment before answering. "Right now, no. The man has a record of harassing people, and there have been a number of complaints filed against him and his business, according to our contact. I reached out to him the next day, just to be on the safe side." Of whom he was speaking, there was no doubt in either Patty or Alex's mind. "So, unless someone finds out different, we have no need to worry about it there. But I still say, if he took the time to go around and start querying people, at their homes, about these two - then that doesn't bode well. There is honestly no telling what he has in mind, and like Alex said, he may be just a bully - but he could end up being more if we're not careful." He turned to his son. "To that, I'll just say it simply, son: be careful, both you and Brett. Make sure, please, if anything else happens, anything at all, that you tell us right away. Understood?"

"Yes, sir. I will, Dad," Alex replied, meekly.

Richard then smiled. "Now, I have one other piece of news for you. Your money in Idaho has been recovered, and its being transferred to your mother and me sometime in the next couple of weeks."

Alex raised both eyebrows in surprise. "Really? Cool!"

"Yes, I agree. It appears the bank somehow discovered one of their employees were doing some other questionable things, too, and when they were ready to confront the lady, she disappeared - completely. So, going back through their records, they were somehow able to reverse that transfer among others. It's going to be delivered to me at work, made out to your mother and myself in the form of a certified check. That avoids the address being directed here and all, you see. When it arrives, we'll endorse it and let you open another account here, if you want."

Alex grinned. "That's great, Dad! Thank you!" he exclaimed, sitting back, obviously relieved.

"No, thank you, son. I've told you this before, and I'll say it again: I'm proud of you. I'm proud of the fact at how careful you are with things, and that you didn't hold this back from your mother and me. You're doing fine, and you'll continue doing fine, I'm sure." Richard smiled. "Just remember, no one is perfect though, not even us. We all make mistakes, because it is just a part of being human. When things like that arise though, we'll deal with them then, but until then - why worry, okay?"

Although he hesitated at first, Alex got up from the chair and moved over to both of his parents, who happened to be sitting together on the couch. Turning between them, he sat down in such a manner they both laughed as Patty scooted to make room for him in the middle. Once there, the teen uncharacteristically pulled them both into an embrace together. To their surprise, he even gave them each a kiss on the side of their head before pulling back. "You're great, too, you know? I couldn't ask for better parents."

Patty reached up and took hold of his hand. "Well, you're the least favorite son we could ask for, too." Alex snickered at that, because it was an old game between all of them. Despite the words, he knew the meaning had an opposite purpose. Being the only son, it made him also their best son, too. Patty reinforced her true meaning, too, by the encouraging smile she returned to him. "So, do as your father says, and try not to worry so much." She glanced at the clock before turning to her husband. "Did you fellows find the part you needed for their air conditioner today?"

Richard grunted. "Yeah, although we had to go to four different places until we found it in stock. Given all the rain and how late it is now though, Roger said he would wait and try to put it on in the morning. I told him I would come up around nine or so and help him finish it out." He shook his head. "I was going to offer that they come down and stay with us tonight, but he said something about he and Brenda were going over to her sister's place to stay. You know, we met them at the cookout that evening, Jerry and Lisa I think were their names, right?"

Patty nodded. "The kids have places to go, too. Brett is coming down here."

Richard grunted before giving his son a sly look. "You two just can't seem to stay away from one another, can you?" Seeing the mock indignation coming forth, he laughed hard. "Stop! Don't get started, I'm only teasing for Pete's sake!"

Alex grinned and then shrugged. "We had nothing to do with it. Mom and Mrs. Edwards already had it planned out before we even got back from camp."

"I know. Roger was telling me that on the way up this morning," the man replied merrily. "So, has anyone thought much about supper yet? I'm kind of getting hungry..."

"You know, my Dad is beginning to really like your Dad," Brett observed later that evening, while he and Alex worked on hanging the new TV in place.

"Why do you say that?" Alex asked, tightening one of the bolts on the back of the support brace.

"Well, he went along with him to get those parts and everything today, and Dad was all over about how helpful your Dad was. Seems he was thinking ahead about some stuff my Dad hadn't thought of beforehand. Like, getting a spare fuse and something about changing a conduit cord, or something," Brett replied. "The way Dad talked, they got along really well, although they had to go to a bunch of places to find everything."

Alex shrugged. "I guess that is kind of cool."

"It is, trust me. Dad has always had guys at work to buddy up with, but they don't come around or anything. It's usually just me and him who get into stuff together. Having someone else to do things with though, who's even willing to help, is a big thing." Brett grunted. "And the fact that someone even laughs at my Dad jokes make it a plus, too."

Alex laughed. "He's not that bad, come on!"

"Well, sometimes he's not, yeah. Just wait until you start hearing the ones about when he was growing up. Some of those are like..." When he didn't complete the sentence, Alex nodded but fell silent, thinking. With the attachments in place, they both hung the TV without any issue, causing Alex to grin. "There! Now all I need is cable, or an antenna or something, then I'm in real business!"

Brett nodded. "You can get the channels out of Indianapolis on just a set of hi-def rabbit ears. Two of them even come in really clear. The others aren't bad, but they aren't sharp or anything." He walked around and observed the inputs as Alex tilted the unit toward the floor. "What you really need though, is cable, or a satellite receiver. Then you get everything in hi-def and all."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. We had cable when we were in Idaho," Alex replied. He looked at his watch. "You know, I wouldn't mind trying rabbit ears for a while. Dad said he still wasn't ready to bite the internet and cable bills quite yet, anyway. Are you really tired? I might get Mom to drive us up to Walmart for a few minutes. They would have some, wouldn't they?"

Brett shrugged. "Well, yeah, I'd think so. And it's not that late, either."

"Any idea how much they cost?" Alex asked.

"No, not really, but we could find out," came the ready reply, before both boys started to head for the stairs.

Arriving downstairs and finding Patty, they pulled up short when she gave them a wide smile. Without saying a word, she motioned for them to follow her, where she led them to the laundry room. Sitting atop the dryer was a box containing the very thing they were getting ready to inquire about. She laughed at seeing the astonishment on Alex's face. "Your father brought this in last night, and it just dawned on me this was where he sat it down. He intended to take it upstairs, I know, but just forgot to."

Alex whistled. "Wow, you must be psychic or something! Thanks Mom!" He gave her another quick kiss on the cheek, then both boys hurriedly made their way back upstairs. Within minutes, they were scanning channels, and just as Brett had predicted, Alex was able to pull in signals for about six broadcasters. "There, that will do for short term. Plus, once we get internet, I can stream a lot of stuff directly."

"Until then, if there's something you want to see special, just come up to my room," Brett added, meeting Alex's raised fist and bumping it mid-way between them. "It seems like things are looking up for you better now, you know?"

Alex turned and sat down on the end of his bed, contemplating Brett's words before nodding. "Yeah, things are beginning to get better, I agree." There was a reserved quality in his voice, however, one which Brett was quick to note.

"You okay? What's going on inside that head of yours?"

Alex blushed. "Nothing really, just wondering about some stuff, and kind of tired, too. It's been a long week. Well," he hesitated, looking up. "Maybe not so much a long week, because it's all been fun and everything, but it has been a very full week."

"I agree with you on that," Brett replied before plopping down beside his friend. "Look, I know I've already asked this a lot, but forgive me, okay? You're not, like, worrying about some, ah, certain things... you know..."

Alex smiled and then leaned in closer. "Nope, I promise. If anything, I'm actually kind of glad you're sleeping here tonight," he whispered.

"Really?" Brett giggled.

"Yep. I mean, after we've been practically sleeping together and everything all week, I think it's going to feel weird being back home now," Alex mused, before bumping shoulders with his best friend. Brett bumped him right back, but fell silent, seemingly satisfied. With that, the two stretched out on the bed and found a movie to watch. More than once Brett tried to close in next to his buddy, but Alex shook his head.

"Mom and Dad will most likely be up here any time now, to see how we did with the TV. I mean, most of the time they leave me alone. Tonight though, I kind of have that feeling, you know?" Alex explained, to which Brett nodded in understanding. Sure enough, a half-hour had not passed before Richard came up the steps, followed by Patty, who was carrying icy drinks and sandwiches for the boys. As suspected, Alex's father did look over the TV and the work the boys did in getting it mounted, before meeting them with an approving eye.

"This is a pretty good job, boys. Well, other than it looks like it's, what, a couple of inches off center," the man commented aloud.

"Yeah, I know, Dad," Alex piped up. "We wanted to make sure we used the studs in the wall for the bracket though. We tried to adjust it back and forth, but that was where we found the wood, and well... you get the idea, right?"

"Oh, yes, I understand perfectly," Richard responded.

Patty sat the tray on the bed and then made her own observation. "It's not that bad, really. Not from back here, anyway."

Richard stepped back and, upon further reflection, then nodded. "I think you did fine, to tell you the truth." He then turned to address the boys directly. "Listen, Alex, I don't know what you two have planned for the next couple of days. Tomorrow being Sunday and all, I guess is free game, but on Monday your mother and I need you to do a few things around here."

"Sure, what's up?" the teen inquired.

"Well, we need the yard mowed, that's a given I guess," Patty spoke up. "We also thought you might mow the neighbors' yard next door for them. Mrs. Rivers fell earlier this week, and she just came home from the hospital this morning. To top that, Mr. Rivers has had a horrible cold he's still fighting. We just thought maybe you'd like to give them a hand for a week or two, until he gets to feeling better. They've always been sweet with us and everything."

Alex nodded. "Sure, I don't mind. In a way, I kind of feel like I need to do something for them, anyway. I mean, well, it's their internet connection I've piggy-backed onto a few times and all."

"Ah," Richard muttered before grinning. "I think you've already told me that once, didn't you? Oh well, you won't have to do it much longer. In fact, I've half a mind to check into getting cable installed next week, and of course that would include internet access, too. That way I can work from home here a couple of days a week, if we get it set up."

"Really? That would be awesome, Dad!" Alex exclaimed. His parents remained and chatted for a few more minutes, and then bade the boys good night. As they were leaving, Patty paused at the door. "Open or closed?"

"Leave it open, Mom. We won't be having any parties up here tonight," Alex chimed playfully, to which he heard both his parents laughing afterwards as they descended the steps. Turning to Brett, he grinned. "And that is that. We'll be all on our own for the rest of the night, I promise."

"I believe you, bro," Brett whispered as he reached for a soda and sandwich. To accentuate his point, he scooted up close to Alex yet again, but this time his friend didn't hesitate or pull back. Both lay wearily against the bean bags, as the weeks' events gradually caught up with them. Both were tired, and although they found the movie interesting, it wasn't long before Brett heard a light snore coming from beside him.

He observed Alex closely as the teen dozed with a peaceful expression on his face. Not unlike the first time Brett had caught the teen asleep, he watched his best friend's chest rise and fall slowly. He wondered what was going on inside the dreams behind those closed eyelids. Were they pleasant, or something more? He couldn't tell, but watching him was making Brett sleepy as well. Seeing that Alex still had a loose grip on the can of soda, he reached and slowly pried it from his fingers. Finding it empty, he quickly drained his own can and quietly sat up, before tossing both into a nearby garbage can. Alex had not stirred yet, so Brett quietly rose and went to the bathroom to relieve himself. Upon returning, he turned off the TV and the light, but not before finding and extracting one of Alex's blankets. Climbing into the bed, he covered them both up.

The change was enough to cause Alex to stir, but how much he awoke was uncertain. As he felt Brett slide in beside him, the teen rolled and pulled close, snuggling up to his side. With an arm around the belly, he held and hugged Brett briefly, but was soon settled as his deep breathing returned. Brett smiled, feeling happier than he felt he deserved, but after cuddling right back in, soon they both were sound asleep.

Alex awoke the next morning just after sunrise. The rain had finally moved on from the previous day, leaving in its wake a bountiful land filled with the song of birds and other creatures as the day arrived. Bright sunlight streamed into his bedroom from the window facing eastward, although it's brightness was filtered and dimmed indirectly through the curtains and blinds that hung there.

The teen lay for a moment, still feeling weary despite a rather long, uneventful night of rest. His eyes focused on the clock and he saw it was just after 7:00, so he contemplated rolling back over and going back to sleep. A more pressing need alerted him, however, and as his wits gathered about him, he suddenly understood it was that which caused him to wake up in the first place. Groggily extracting himself from Brett, who had wrapped Alex in his arms sometime during the night, he stood and stumbled his way into the bathroom.

Upon returning, he crawled back under the blanket and then turned his back to his friend, scooting up close once again. Brett, as if by some automated process unseen, immediately spooned his friend tight, which caused Alex to smile. They were both fully clothed for a change, at least to the extent of their shorts and t-shirts they had worn the evening before, but the closeness was still just as warm and effective as ever.

Alex found that he could not go back to sleep, however. As he lay there in the arms of his friend, his mind wandered from first one thing and then another. Most of his thoughts centered on the week before, reliving various events at camp. Although the bulk of the boys were younger by three to four years, and thus their maturity level certainly appropriate to that age, he was surprised and pleased at how well grounded most of them were. Not once had there been any horseplay or mischief that stepped out of bounds, requiring any reprimands that Alex knew of. They had gone 'wild' somewhat, as Brett, James and others had forewarned, but there were limits - and the boys seemed to understand where those limits were. Even in his own swimming class, the boys had been highly respectful of him and Brett.

It was credit to them all, in the best of ways. Alex recalled when he had finally removed his shirt, displaying his streaks and scars to the world for them to see. He certainly expected a far harsher reaction from them than what he had received. In fact, other than the initial surprise, their reactions were far from harsh. When they had wanted to touch him, perhaps for an instant he was hesitant with genuine surprise, but he saw a natural curiosity in their faces and it gave him courage. As he felt their hands, purposefully tracing the ridges around his breast and up into his side and shoulder, he had gained strength in their connection to himself. It was not what he had expected would happen, and the wonder he felt afterwards was what changed his preconceptions about them, and himself. When Ethan had asked if he was going to strip and join the guys, he didn't have to hesitate then. He remembered looking down at the boy, shrugging and then just doing it. Every boy in the water was already seemingly carefree to the world, without making fun of anyone. Alex knew he was already carefree himself around Brett. Why couldn't he let his guard down, for a little while, around the rest of his class?

Those two events where he displayed himself to the world had changed Alex on the inside. Getting naked like that wasn't sex itself. He had tried to explain that to Ethan, and for once, it seemed he was not only explaining it for the younger boy, but he was hearing it for himself at the same time. He had already heard a lot of things that week, and not just with his head. When his heart accepted them, so did the rest of himself as a person.

Alex's thoughts turned to Ethan again, especially the last night at camp. All the boys were in the main courtyard, playing and goofing off, with another huge bonfire lit in the center. In the distance, campers could be heard down at the lake in canoes, or getting in some last-minute swimming. On this night, plenty of staff members and counselors floated throughout the area, so no one was skinny dipping for a change, but it still did not diminish the sounds of fun that could be heard on occasion. Others were roasting hot dogs or other various items of food, and from somewhere off to one side, loud music could be heard.

It was that night that Alex, walking about by himself, had found the young man stretched out on a towel, shirtless and near the fire. As the teen sauntered over, he had noted that the shirt was half-draped across the boy's torso, suggesting he may have been involved in some of the more physical activities nearby, and had just decided to take a break and cool down. When he arrived, he saw Ethan had turned and was looking up at him. "Hey," Alex announced himself, but saw no immediate reaction. That is, until he moved into just enough of an angle where the boy could recognize him.

"Oh, yeah, hey," Ethan responded, then grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, with that bonfire behind you, I wasn't too sure who you were for a minute."

Alex giggled, then saw a relatively large enough opening on the towel, so he pivoted and sat down next to the boy. Ethan suddenly grunted before moving further to the side. "Sheesh!" Ethan exclaimed, laughing. "Don't take all my room!"

Alex knew he was kidding though. "Make some room, Doom-and-Gloom!" he quipped, but then caught himself in surprise as he laughed and blushed.

"What the hell? Where did THAT come from?" Ethan asked, laughing along.

"Sorry. Brett's sister is always coming up with these limericks like that when she greets or talks with people. I think some of it may have rubbed off on me," the teen explained.

"That's hilarious! I bet life in their house must be a lot of fun, then!" Ethan remarked, to which Alex nodded. "So, how's it going, being the last night and all?"

"Okay, I guess," Alex replied, before glancing over at him. "How about with you? Still dreading going home tomorrow?"

"Always, man," Ethan responded, but then made a face. "But you know something? It'll be worth it. Getting to come here for a week, to get away from everything else? I don't care what my shithead-of-a-father throws at me. I at least got to make some friends this week, real friends, and be away from him." Ethan looked up. "I mean that, too. Real friends, even if one of them is a certain goofball of a teacher."

Alex grunted. "You'll always have friends, Ethan, as long as you'll respect them. Some of them you just have to seek out sometimes, that's all." He paused and smiled. "I'm glad to have made a new friend, too."

"You better be," Ethan said, before reaching out and slipping his arm around Alex's waist, giving the older teen a makeshift hug. "I'm going to miss you, though."

"Why?" Alex asked. "What makes you think we won't see each other again?"

"Alex, you're in high school man, and I'm still just in Junior High. Two different schools, two different busses, two different grades - we're not going to be around each other very much at all, you know?" Ethan explained.

Alex fell silent for a moment, then spoke in a softer voice. "What if there was a way you could reach out to me, whenever you wanted to?" The teen then shifted so he could now look down and address Ethan directly. "Can you get to a phone sometimes, on your own?"

Ethan nodded. "Yeah, sometimes."

Alex thought for a few seconds and then nodded. Pulling a pen from his pocket, he reached and grasped Ethan's hand. There, he wrote a series of digits into the palm. "When you get home, write this number down somewhere that you think is safe, okay? Then, when you want to talk to me, call it."

Ethan looked at the writing in his hand. Shaking his head, he looked up. "But - that's not a number."

Alex smiled. "If you subtract one from every odd digit, and two from every even digit, it is."

"What? Wait..." Ethan stared at the numbers again, before a wide smile appeared. "Whoa, that's fucking insane! Wow!" He looked up. "Thanks, man!"

Alex sat back and nodded. "Just so you know, you're only the fourth person to ever get that, so um, kind of be careful with it, okay?" Seeing the questioning expression, he explained. "Only my parents and Brett have that number. OH, and well, there's a couple of car dealers, too. I forgot about them. The point is though, not a lot of people have my number."

"You mean, it's like a secret number or something?" Ethan asked.

"No, it's not secret or anything. I just, well, you know I just recently moved here and all," Alex explained, then stopped as Ethan's expression turned to one of understanding.

"So, just me and Brett? Wow..." the younger boy mused softly. "Thanks."

"You can call me most anytime, okay? If you call and I don't answer, or something, then call me back again a second time, say 30-seconds or so later. That's a kind of signal my parents and I use, to tell someone when its urgent, but it's also a way for me to know who you might be. I mean, if I don't recognize the number sometimes... Understand? Also, you can send me a text anytime you want, too," Alex explained.

Ethan grunted. "I don't have a cell phone, though."

"Doesn't matter. You can usually send texts from a computer too, if you know how. Like, from your email, if you know how to pass it on." He explained how that was done, which Ethan paid rapt attention as if hanging on every word."

"Are you serious? So, if I send an email to that address, it'll translate it and send it to your phone as a text message?" the younger boy asked.

"Yep," Alex answered, nodding. "You can't add any files, or put pictures or anything in it that way, see. It's still useful that way though to send short, simple messages. You're limited probably to around 250-characters or less, but yeah, it'll get to me. Just send me text like, where to call you, or say hi, or I don't know, stuff like that. Or, if you get in trouble and need me, too." He watched Ethan comprehend and nod at him before he continued. "So, you can get me that way, or if you get on your Mom's cell, or someone else's cell phone, then you can send me anything from there pretty much. Just be sure to tell me it's from you, if you do, okay?" Alex stopped and wrinkled his nose. "Understand something, though. I probably won't try to reach out to you, any. I don't want you getting in trouble or anything with your Dad. Only you'll know when and how you can call me, okay?"

"I understand, and that's okay." Ethan looked up and sighed. "You're cool, Alex. Thanks. This means a lot."

Alex studied the boy a moment longer. "You can call me about anything, Ethan. I don't care. Like I said, if you're in trouble, and need help, or if you just want someone to talk to, ask questions, or just ... you know, be there and talk, or listen. I promise, I'll always try and do my best. Brett will too, if you need to find him. I think there is only a couple of Edwards listed in the phone book, and his family is the only ones listed on our side of town. But he's good, too, Ethan. He has a good heart, and I know he likes you a lot, too."

"Really? Where is he, by the way?" Ethan asked.

"I'm not sure. Mr. Walters came by earlier and asked if Brett could help him with something for a little bit, so they went off together. I haven't seen him now for, I don't know, maybe an hour or more," Alex explained.

"Ah, I see." Ethan wrinkled his nose and then sat up before pulling his t-shirt on over his head. "Have you eaten anything yet? I was just trying to cool off for a bit before I walked up to the food."

"No, I haven't. Come on," Alex remarked, standing up and extending his hand to the younger boy. "Let's go see what we can find."

Ethan accepted the helping hand and popped up onto his feet. They both walked up to the tables that had been setup and found a fairly wide variety of different foods to contemplate. Grabbing plates, they filled them with helpings of macaroni and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, and chips, then also grabbed a skewer and fastened several hot dogs on the end to be roasted. About the time they reached the end of the line, Brett suddenly appeared by their side. "What, eating without me? I'm starved!" he teased and then laughed. "Give me a minute and I'll catch up."

"If you want any hot dogs, we've already got some extras here. Just get the other stuff you want is all. We'll set up at one of the tables, and I'll get these started over on the fire," Alex called after him, to which Brett nodded and waved in acknowledgement.

Before long, Brett arrived at the table with Ethan. Sitting down, he popped the top of his soda can and took a long drink. "So, what's been happening while I was gone?" he asked Ethan, who was sitting there slowly munching on his chips while they waited.

"Nothing, really. I played some basketball for a while, then took a break. Alex joined me and we got hungry, more or less. He said you got kidnapped by one of the coaches or somebody," Ethan explained.

"Yeah, for a little bit. They're setting up the awards to give out later tonight."

"Awards? What kind?" Ethan asked.

A merry twinkle met him, just as they saw Alex returning, this time with a skewer of cooked franks, but also carrying several buns. "You'll see later. It's good, though." When Alex asked about it, he repeated the same answer he gave Ethan and then just shrugged.

That may have been an understatement, at least in Alex's world. That evening, as darkness began to fall, all of the boys were called into the mess hall, where ice cream awaited the group. As soon as most had made it through the lines and sat down, several of the counselors took center stage to address them. "Well, here we are, last night rites and everything. I guess most of you noticed the clouds rolling in and all, so we won't put a curfew on until at least around midnight, provided you stay in the main courtyard out there. You cannot go swimming though, so that rule is still in effect, alright?" Fred Walters began as he addressed the group. "Once the rain starts, which is probably only a couple of hours out now, you'd probably do well to report to your dens, too. Otherwise, your leaders are going to be up all night worrying where you're at and trying to find you. Of course, maybe that's what some of you want to do anyway, but..."

A general murmur of amusement and giggling went through the group. It was then Mr. Freedman took over. "What we want to do, boys, is what we do every year, and that's to give out a few awards to campers whom we feel should be recognized. You understand, not everyone can get an award, but all of you probably should get something just for how great you've been as a group this year. No one got hurt, we didn't have to call an ambulance for anyone - thank goodness. Nor have we had to correct any of you, call you out, put you in time out or anything else. This has, honestly, been the best group of boys I've ever had the privilege of working with, in my 22 years of doing this."

To that, there was a resounding, thunderous wave of applause, whistles and cheers that spread over the group, one in which the counselors stood before them patiently as the congratulated each other. When the noise died down, they then began calling out several names, bringing people forward and giving small wooden plaques or miniature trophies for their outstanding accomplishments. Alex decided this was what Brett had been called to help with earlier, and like the rest, he cheered and applauded them on. He was surprised though when, near the end, Coach Jacobs took the stand and called up all of the boys from Alex's beginners swimming class, and then for Brett and himself to join them. Once they had assembled, he cleared his throat and waited for the rest of the crowd to quiet down.

"Now, we don't usually take an entire group like this, but I think we should all give them a round of applause for having not only learned how to swim, but to go beyond that. All of us, counselors and coaches alike, have watched this group all week long, and noticed how many of them not only get in the water, but have learned to jump, dive and do a whole lot more than just mere beginners do - and without hesitating any. That says something, boys. If you don't believe me, think back to the time when you first learned how to swim. How long did it take you to get enough courage to do some of those types of stunts, hmm?" With that, the boys did indeed receive a thunderous roar from the group. When they quieted, Jacobs turned to the two older teens.

"A lot of it is to be credited to these two young men, here. One, who is one of our regular campers that has been here, I think now, for about the last four years in a row. The other, however, is what a lot of us like to call a newbie, meaning someone who has never before set foot in camp life, if I hear correctly." A low murmur erupted from the crowd at that revelation, causing Alex to blush, before Coach Jacobs continued. "It's to you, I believe, that these young men want to give something, however."

Alex looked on in surprise as the Coach handed the microphone to Brad. "Well, uh, it's like this. He was our teacher, but he was also a lot more than that. We never heard of anyone doing quite the things like he did with us, and we think that's why we learned everything so fast and all. I remember when my older brother, Steven, came here and learned how to swim in his first year. It was probably a whole year again before he would dive in from the edge of our grandparent's pool, or jump off a diving board. Alex here, he had us doing all of that by the third day, on our last day of class. That may not seem like much for some people, but it was a lot to our group, and we wanted to thank him for it." This time, another chorus of cheers went up, this time from the swimming group itself, all agreeing with their spokesman before he continued. "So, this is something we wanted to do for you, man. For someone who has never been to a camp before, we would have never known it if you hadn't told us. You not only taught us how to swim, but also how to not be afraid of the water, or of each other. You were our friend, and that's what we liked most about you and Brett both. So here, for both of you, we got these certificates made up. They read..." Brad had to pause as a light round of applause started in the back of the house, but quickly quieted. "For exceptional heroism and valor, with a naughty bunch of swimming wanna-be goof balls, Camp Indy recognizes Alex Branham, and the other one says Brett Edwards, as Master Instructors. Both certificates are signed by Coach Jacobs, as well as all 27 of us, too." He then held up the certificates to the audience, showing their contents to the assembly.

A thunderous roar then erupted within the building, and was sustained for several minutes as Alex and Brett both walked to center stage and accepted their gifts. Alex blushed deeply, but finally laughed and grinned as Brett elbowed him. Each of the swimmers crowded around them both and hugged the two fiercely, before disappearing one by one back into the crowd. When all was said and done, Fred Walters took the stage again. "There you go, well deserved. Now, there are plenty of ice cream sticks still left, so anyone wanting another, grab it on your way out. Also, take extra care to get up at the bugle call in the morning when it sounds, as we will have to get dressed, eat breakfast and load the busses as quickly as we can. Try to be good and all, if you can for these last couple of hours. Remember, no more swimming tonight, and if it starts raining, get your tails into your dens. Alright? Then dismissed!"

Alex turned to Brett as they walked out of the building with the masses. "Is this why he snagged you?" he asked, to which Brett grinned.

"Partially, although I didn't know they were making one for me, too. It was all Brad's idea, and he took it up with one of the other den leaders before they passed it on to the coaches," Brett explained.

That had been an exciting conclusion that evening, especially when throughout the rest of the night various members of the team had sought him out one last time to say thanks, some even giving him extra hugs. Later, in their den, Brad had come up to him in front of everyone, and after grasping him hard, swung the teen around until Alex ended up on one of their bunk beds. With that the other boys joined in, all giving both him and Brett an overwhelming session of wrestling and tickling over the next several minutes. Much grappling and body contact took place, grasping anything and everything it seemed, but no one minded. When it had finally died down, it was Brad who had once again acquired a hold on his older friend, and who had whispered into his ear, "I guess you won't trust me with any more hugs now, will you?"

Now, back home, Alex smiled and looked over at his desk, where he had mounted the certificate on an easel. He recalled whispering back, "I'll give you this one free, as long as you'll let me hug you back." And at that, he did pull the boy up close with an intimacy he usually reserved only for Brett. Brad received it well, melting inside the older teen's grasp as he hugged back, both feeling a warmness between them that would not be forgotten for a long time. The whole evening had been a first for Alex, and as he lay there thinking about it, he was reminded that Brett was still behind him. He felt his best friend shift again, spooning up ever closer and wrapping his arm around Alex's belly.

Alex grasped the arm enveloping him and held on, for a very long time.

Sometime later, both boys were startled awake by the ringing of Alex's cell phone. Glancing at the clock, the teen gasped as he sat up and grabbed the device before answering the call. "Hello?"

"Ah, Alex. This is Arduino Bay, with Bay Auto sales."

Immediately Alex recognized the voice. "Hi, Mr. Bay! Sorry, it took me a few seconds to clear the cobwebs."

Mr. Bay laughed. "I take it you must have still been asleep, then. My apologies."

"No, no! It's perfectly fine, even though it is-" Alex stopped to focus on the clock, "almost nearly 11:00! Wow, I don't usually sleep this long, even for a Sunday morning!"

Again, the man laughed. "Well, you just got back from camp, right? You probably needed some extra rest to recover with. Listen, I won't be but a minute. I was wondering if you and Brett there were planning to get back into some more detailing work this coming week. I've got two vehicles coming up on Tuesday, and I know Bob has one sitting on his back lot now. So, that's three that could use some cleaning up. There's also one other one I can tell you about, if you're interested."

Alex's eyes narrowed. "Well, sure! I mean, go ahead!"

"Well, there's a body shop across town run by my brother, Thomas, and they've been working for months on this special rebuild of an old antique 1957 Chevy for one of his clients. He thinks they'll probably finish it up in a couple of days now, and if they do, he'd like to get you two to do a nice clean-up on it. You understand, it's a classic - a lot of it totally rebuilt from scratch, using parts he's picked up or found all around the country," the man concluded.

Alex was astounded. "And he wants... us? To clean it up, I mean?"

Yet again, Mr. Bay laughed. "Don't sound so surprised, young man. Thomas is the type of person he doesn't want to put it through any automated washes if he can keep from it. To tell the truth, I think he wants to drive it up into Indy for a car show next weekend before he lets his client even know it's ready. So, he's seen what you guys can do, and he's asked me what I pay you for general cars and such. When I told him, he told me to get you on board, if you're interested."

"Wow, would we ever! Thanks, Mr. Bay! Yeah, we'll be glad to do it!" Alex paused briefly. "We've kind of committed to taking care of some things around home tomorrow, since we've been gone a week. Could we just start, say, Tuesday? We can handle your two, then take care of the others whenever they're ready."

"That would be excellent, yes. So, you'll come down about the usual time then?" the man asked.

"Sure, we should be there between around 9:00 or so, especially since we'll be doing both the same day," Alex answered. He thanked the man again and then hung up.

Brett, now awake and listening to the one side of the conversation, sat up and pulled his knees to his chest. "Okay, spill it." Alex laughed, then filled him in, saving the antique car until last. Brett's eyes lit up immediately. "I've seen that car! Seriously, umm, I think back before Christmas! Dad and I went by there to see about something on his truck that had come loose, and there was this '57 Chevy sitting in the paint bay! It was super nice, too!" He grinned. "And now we're going to, like, get to crawl all through it and check it out up close! That is awesome, Alex!"

"I agree," Alex replied, nodding before he yawned deeply. "Man, I'm surprised Mom didn't come up here and wake us up! I never sleep in this late!" He turned to Brett and grimaced. "I think your bad habits are rubbing off on me."

"Me! Now, wait a minute! You're the-"

That was as far as Brett got before Alex leaned in and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. When he drew back, he was grinning. "I think I know how to get you to shush in a hurry, now," he whispered. Brett was beside himself feeling happy, but he couldn't resist glancing around at the open bedroom door.

"That might have been dangerous, you know," Brett whispered, but Alex shrugged.

"Yeah, but like I said last night, the odds are so incredibly small..." Alex's voice trailed off, but then he leaned in again, this time to hug his friend. "Don't worry, I doubt it'll ever happen like that again, but..." Alex giggled at Brett's expression, then climbed from the bed. "Come on, I've got to pee again."

Brett gazed after his friend only briefly, before extracting himself from the bed as well. Following Alex inside to the toilet, he stood beside his friend and made to relieve himself, too. As they continued, their streams found and intersected each other, making Alex grunt at the play. "Somehow, I half-way expected this is what you were going to do."

Brett grunted as well, but his mind happened to be elsewhere. "Can I ask you something, and will you try not to laugh at me about it?"

Alex noted the seriousness in the teen's voice, so he nodded. "I guess. What's up?"

"Well, look at me, please. I mean, really look at me and be honest. Do I really have that much, uh, hair and everything? Is it really, like, gross or something?" Brett asked.

Alex actually sighed in relief, partially to hide the giggle that had started to find its way forward. Instead, he waited until Brett had finished before reaching over to thread his fingers through his friend's pubic bush. "You're asking me? The one who has never, before this week, really seen anything like this, or you?"

Brett wasn't going to let it go that easily, though. "Well, you've seen others now. Not just our guys and all, but some of the other older teens, too. They're our age, roughly." He looked up. "I know, it sounds kind of dumb to ask and all, but seriously, tell me what YOU think."

Alex glanced up and, for a few seconds, noted that something was silently exchanged between them. Brett seemed to actually want Alex's opinion on this topic. He recalled the few remarks that had been made by the guys that day at the lake. "Brett, you're bigger, okay? Bigger than me, more developed and everything, too. Not everyone gets that lucky, you know, at our age at least. Not like you did."

"Maybe, but you're still avoiding the question. Do YOU think it looks bad, or gross, or ... you know?" the teen mused, waiting.

Alex reached up and scratched his head briefly. "I think, the older or bigger you get, then yeah, the more you like, mature down there." Glancing again, he added. "Answer me something - have I ever made fun of you, or acted like it was gross or anything?"

"No, not that I know of. You said something once about me having more hair, but-"

"Well, isn't it true that some guys are a lot hairier than others?" This time Alex did giggle. "I think a lot of us are different, Brett, because it just shows how unique we are. Like the guys when they were skinning, I watched and saw a lot of them. Some didn't have any at all, while others had a little growing and so forth. It's like I told you before, we all have the same basic equipment, but what makes it interesting is the fact we're also different. That includes our pubes, bro."

Brett thought about that for a moment as they stood there, before looking up again. "Okay, I'll buy that, I think. Still, for me, you don't think it's like gross or anything, then?"

"No effing way," Alex whispered back to him. "But if it bothers you, then we can always trim them up. If you want to, that is."

Both of Brett's eyebrows shot up toward his forehead. "Really?" He glanced back down at himself one last time, then pulled his garments back up in front and into place. As Alex did the same, he remarked. "Thanks, I appreciate that. I really do."

Alex cocked his head to one side. "Sure. Uh, can I giggle some more now?" He dropped back to avoid the swat Brett took at him, but both ended up laughing before they turned to wash their hands. As they re-entered the bedroom, Alex stopped. "I don't know when I'll get to do this again over the next few days, so for now..." He threaded his arms inside those of Brett's and hugged him, placing his head on Brett's shoulder. Brett reciprocated, and both stood in the middle of the room. "Thank you for everything this week, bro. And I do mean it - everything. Love ya," Alex whispered finally.

Brett nodded. "That goes for me, too, Alex. All and more. Thank you for going with me, and thank you for being such a good sport about it all. I know that it had to be different and new, or weird, for you some, but..."

Alex shook his head, though. "Not really. Yeah, different I'll grant you, but it really wasn't that bad at all. Kind of like you told me all along, it was really fun. As far as people go, too, it was a lot better than I thought it would be, too."

"See?" Brett whispered back. "You're as normal as the rest of us. We're just as goofy and crazy at times about things, but all heart about others. We're not assholes, I mean."

"I never thought you would be, but still, I had to learn. Right?" Alex pulled back. "Besides, I was with you. That's all that mattered, honest."

Brett pulled him in once more and squeezed tight. "Listen, we'll still have plenty of hugs, and other things, bro. I promise."

"I know we will," Alex replied. When the two finally separated, both were smiling before they began heading downstairs.

The coming week flew by rapidly as the families headed into early July with a whirlwind of activity. Monday was spent, as promised, taking care of local chores for both families, tending to the lawn and trimming hedges. Alex also mowed the yard for their next-door neighbor, a task which caused the older man to step out at one point and watch him with a smile. As he neared the end of his task, the man flagged Alex down and tried to hand him a $20 note, but Alex refused to take it. They did talk at length, and Alex surprised the man when he confessed about piggybacking onto their internet connection.

"You don't say? I thought we had that secured up there," Alan Rivers mused thoughtfully.

Alex blushed. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have done it, but I had a couple of emergencies come up, and I didn't know any other way to get out from here."

Alan waved him off. "You misunderstand, I don't mind you tapping on at all. It's just, when they set it up for us, they gave us this password we have to give people to access it as a guest. And you say you just logged on without it?"

"Well, yes sir," Alex replied, but then thought about it. "You know, there's several things that could be wrong, or maybe just not checked right on your router or something. I'm not an expert or anything, but I know a little about that stuff. If you want, I could take a look for you."

"Why, yes, please do!" Alan answered eagerly. "You've finished out here, I think, right? Come on in now, if you want. I'll get you a cold drink from the fridge and all!"

Alex grinned and followed the man inside. Once he was shown where the router was, he asked if the couple had a tablet or computer they hooked to the internet with. Cecilia appeared then, and handed the teen her iPad. "Will this do?" Alex nodded, and then started playing with the settings until he connected directly to the router. Within minutes, he showed the older man where the problem was.

"See here, they did fix it up for you sir, because here is the password and everything. However, it looks like someone forgot to click the checkbox that requires connections to be encrypted and all. See, if I click this," the teen started, and then paused until the status updated. "Now, anyone who wants to access your internet has to have this password." He looked up. "Even me," Alex added sheepishly.

"'twooldgoats', no uppercase letters, completely spelled out. That's the password," the man offered, chuckling. "And don't make fun of us, please. It was the only thing I could think of at the time, that I figured I would be able to easily remember!"

Alex laughed, then addressed them both. "Thanks, but Dad said he would look into getting us an internet connection either this week or the next. I do appreciate the offer, though."

Cecilia glanced up at her husband, but then shrugged. "Well, you have access until then, at least. We hardly ever use it as it is. It's more for me to jump on Facebook and keep up with the grandkids and family. We rarely use it for anything else, really."

Alex stayed with the couple for the better part of a half hour, chatting amicably and enjoying a rather large glass of iced tea with them. When he rose to leave, however, the man once again attempted to pay him. Alex politely refused, however. "Seriously, sir, don't worry about it. If you guys need anything, or need me to mow for you or something, just let me know, okay? I'll be happy to help you out in any way I can."

With that, Cecilia leaned in and gave him a warm hug.

The weather continued to be hot and humid, following the previous week's mix of precipitation and sunshine. On Tuesday, he and Brett teamed together again and tackled the two vehicles for Mr. Bay. With both vehicles in the back lot away from the general public, Brett shed his t-shirt while working, but it was not something Alex felt comfortable with yet. As the afternoon progressed, the two boys began to wear down quickly, but both finished their jobs to the owner's satisfaction. The next day was no different, as the heat wave turned northward another notch on the thermometer. Both boys ended up detailing not one, but two vehicles for Bob Moore, and he surprised them both by paying his bill that afternoon. Although Alex had made it a point to let the man know there was no hurry, Mr. Moore smiled and shrugged. "Maybe not, but I have the money now, so let's just settle up, shall we?" He paid them with an additional $10 tip, then promised he would probably have another vehicle by the middle of the next week.

It was Thursday before both teens made their way to the body shop where the '57 Chevy was indeed awaiting them. Thomas Bay greeted them cheerfully, then showed them his prize work with a great deal of pride. Brett continuously whistled as they popped the hood up and saw the engine underneath, and the interior, which included many authentic-looking parts. The man even showed them an actual, working radio from the period, though he admitted it was manufactured two-years after the auto was introduced. "It's the closest I could come up with, though, so it's all good," he explained good-naturedly.

Both boys went to work, taking extra care while moving in and around the bodywork, as well as the interior. Many of the things they normally were tasked with didn't seem to apply, but Alex made careful note of various little things to tackle as he worked their list. By mid-afternoon, the car was polished to a shine, along with its interior seats and side-panels glistening like new. When Thomas came to inspect their work, he nodded continuously, impressed with the results. "That just about does her, right? It looks awesome boys!" He straightened up. "Listen, would the two of you like to join me Saturday? I'm going to take her up into Indy, on the north side. There's a big holiday car show going on, and I thought I would go up for a stay and see what people think. There'll be a lot of cars there, some antiques like this, but really a lot of different genres and ages. It's kind of a fun venue to just go around to, and I thought you boys might like to see it."

Brett smiled. "I think that would be awesome!"

When Alex nodded in agreement, Thomas continued. "We have to get there by 10:00, so I figure I'll leave here around 8:00 or so. It'll last until around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, so you won't get home until 7:00 to 8:00 that night, especially if we stop and get a bite to eat afterwards. Also, it's near one of the big malls, so you can spend part of your day there if you want." He saw both boys' glance at one another. When they didn't answer right away, he added, "It's only if you're interested, of course. Arduino was going to go with me, but he's afraid he won't be able to make it."

"Uh, well, I'm kind of interested, yeah, but I'll have to talk to my Dad about it first," Alex finally spoke up, with Brett nodding by his side.

Thomas smiled and nodded. "Well, you do that. Just give me a call," he paused, handing them his business card. "Let me know, okay? Your parents are welcome to chat with me too, if they think they need to. I promise though, I'm not out to kidnap you, or hoodwink you for the next porno wave coming through town or anything," he added with an amused tone.

"We wouldn't worry about that, Mr. Bay," Brett answered, laughing out loud with Alex.

"Well, good then. Listen, I'd pay you boys now, but I just checked my cash box and saw it was a little low. Can you hold out until tomorrow? I have to go to the bank for other things anyway, so if it's okay, I'll run the money out to your house afterwards," Thomas explained.

Alex, however, shook his head. "If we're going with you Saturday, suppose we just get it then, or if something comes up, we can collect it next week if you like."

Thomas nodded. "Well, if you're sure, that's fine with me." The boys bade the man a hearty goodbye, then mounted their bikes for the trip home.

It was several minutes before they re-entered more familiar territory, and passing by the local Dairy Queen, they stopped to purchase dipped cones. Sitting in one of the booths, both leaned back and watched the traffic on the highway as it passed by. "Do we have anything for tomorrow?" Brett finally asked, breaking the silence with a weary tone.

Alex shook his head. "I don't even WANT anything tomorrow, to tell the truth. I've got aches on top of my aches already!"

"I hear you, and I'm right there with you. Let's take it easy, then. Maybe even go to the pool, if you want. We can take Gina and help her with some swimming and stuff, like you promised," Brett mused.

"That would be cool, and different," Alex nodded. "I might need to go buy some swimming trunks, though."

"Why?" Brett sighed, then giggled. "You share enough stuff with me Branham, let me share something back. I've got two or three pairs, you know. Surely one of them will fit you."

Alex laughed, then accepted. "Okay, okay... Deal." They both looked at each other, and even with their gradually increasing state of exhaustion, something was exchanged between them yet again. Brett's expression softened.

"You understood what I meant, right?"

"Yeah, I do. No problem-o, bro…" Alex whispered back, smiling and meeting Brett's offered fist bump in mid-air.

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